On academic job applications and interviews

Recently i was involved in some discussion emerging from the CRIT-GEOG forum related to early career life and the increasing challenges faced by those coming out of PhDs. This has got me thinking about the job situation etc (also see this from the Times Higher that I know started a twitter discussion). Given I’ve have heard from colleagues that some people have found the ‘early career‘ post I put up here useful and that I should do more, particularly orientated towards early career related themes, I thought i’d write something about academic job applications and interviews

While quite a bit of useful advice has been given in various places about things like getting the PhD itself (see Place Hacking), and writing practices here and here), I’ve not seen much advice about the job interview process (though, to be fair my blog reading tends to be quite narrow/I’d be interested to see anything that has).

So, below are a range of reflections on my experiences of applying to jobs and going to job interviews over the past few years and some suggestions on what I think worked and that i think didn’t. I should say though that these are by no means to be taken as authoritative statements – I’ve not been on any interview panels and so have less insight from that side of things (but comments from those who have would be very welcome!). Rather, thus far I’ve been to 6 interviews for academic jobs (5 lectureships of various term and one teaching fellowship) and have been offered 4 of those posts…

Also given I’m busy with various deadlines at the moment/there’s a lot to say on this, I will break this up into at least two posts (and may supplement them as I think of things). The second post will come when I get the chance, but with the addition of upcoming big ‘life events’, that may be a little while…

[please excuse the likely high number of typos also – this was written rather rushed on my iPad and I’ve not had time to check it through…]

So, starting with the prep. side of things:

1) getting into the interview room in the first place (a restatement of some relatively obvious points)

As I’ve written elsewhere, increasingly, to get an interview during/after your PhD you have to have a record of publishing, especially if it is a lecturing post. When I was being interviewed at the end of my PhD, I had one paper out and another forthcoming that year. I also had a 3rd in review. Most if not all of the people in those interviews had the same. While short listing panels will take career stage into consideration, they will still want evidence that you can actually publish as this is a key aspect of being an academic.

In addition to publishing, it is also important to show you’ve been ambitious in other ways. So go to, and more importantly, present at, conference. And don’t just limit yourself to postgrad sessions – full sessions will get you greater exposure and will likely help you meet the people who may well be in the department you end up being interviewed in, or even on the panel. This all rounds off your CV and shows you as actively engaging in activities the interviewing department would expect to see you doing once you are in post.

Importantly though, many departments will also want you to have experience of teaching of some kind. This might be tutorials , it might be a guest lecture or two, it might be demonstrating. Whatever it is, they will want to be sure that you can actually stand up in front of a room full of students and deliver. As such, it is really important to take up any opportunities you can during your phd to get some experience. And if this doesn’t come your way during the first year or so of the phd, chase it!! It is very likely that your supervisor will be happy to give you a lecture of too from their load!

Finally, apply to anything and everything. While you may have social ties etc to specific places, while you may not want to move, if you want an academic career, you can’t be picky at the start of your career. There are simply not enough jobs around to allow this. Also, don’t turn your nose up at a short job/expect a permanent post straight off. Some manage this, but they tend to be the exception. Going to Keele on a 9 month lectureship for me was turn out to be a really productive experience – I got lots of teaching and admin experience in a short time and it was instrumental in me getting a longer contract at Plymouth, and then ultimately that played a big part in getting the permanent post back at Keele. It will have meant 3 moves in 4 years, but that’s the way it goes/I know many people who have not been as lucky and are still have to take on year-to-year contracts several years down the line…

2) the application
Different places will have slightly different set ups here, but in all likelihood, you will have to submit: a) a form; b) a statement about your research and teaching (possibly as a covert letter, stand alone document, or as part of the form); and c) a CV.

This might sound so blindingly obvious that you think it wouldn’t need said, but DO WHAT YOU ARE ASKED here!! I was shocked once when reviewing applications to contribute to a short-listing that someone hadn’t submitted the generic application form they were asked to. In some cases departments/unis will state applications will not be considered without this. But even if not, it does suggest either an arrogance or lack of care on behalf of the applicant – not something I’d think many would want to portray in their application! Fair enough, your CV may cover the same info, but take the time to re-type it. You don’t want to put yourself out of the pool of candidates before the applications are even looked at…

As for the statement, it is important to look at the job spec and make sure you show you meet all the essential criteria and as much of the desired criteria as you can. You could do this as a list of statements related to it to make it bluntly clear, but I tend towards a more synthesised statement that covers them all together in a more narrated way. For me this is structured along: a) General research interests; b) Current research activities; c) Future research plans; d) teaching and admin experiences; e) How I would fit teaching/admin in the department. It’s up to you, but make sure you are writing a out what they want you to write about, not just what you want to tell them or think is important or think suites you better. And be concise –  job might get 50 applications with means a lot of reading for the short listing panel!!

You should also be careful with getting this to be balanced. If the role is teaching and research, talk about BOTH in relative depth, not one or the other. One way to check this is as simple as counting paragraphs – 5 on research and 1 on teaching may not be suitable for a teaching fellow post (unless you make it clear how your research will connect to the teaching/why you’ve written so much about it) – above mine normally comes out at 3/2 or 4/2). Again, at an early career stage/just post-phd you may have limited teaching experience, so you need to think about how you can best present what you have (without labouring it by listing the topic of every tutorial you’ve ever run).

Also, throughout, try to connect your application to the post/department – suggest connections to people there that you might work with, the research groups you would fit into, the people in other departments you could build links with, how you could fit into and contribute to existing teaching etc. While you can have a fair amount of generic copy-and -paste text you reuse in your application, you should have points you can tailor to a specific post. I often have a standard document with these bits highlighted in a bright colour so I see them/make sure I edit them for each application I put in (you don’t want to talk about the ‘University of X’ when applying to the ‘University of Y’, but. I’ve seen and heard of people doing it!!).

As for the CV, again there are different ways of doing this. I tend to go for the statements of facts/lists of what I’ve done (teaching history, qualifications, training courses, list of research areas, grants, publications, conference papers etc) rather than the more general listing of ‘skill sets’ and how I am ‘a highly motivated individual who works well with others’ etc. etc.. To me this tends to seem a bit like groundless fluff unless you do it really well and back it up with substantive examples of how you have done that (and this is what your personal statement/cover letter etc can do).

Another thing I’d warn against from discussions with various senior colleague is listing dozens of ‘planned’ papers from your PhD. It is more important to show you have published from it or have things you are working on/in the mix than listing a page of things you plan to write. If you list a dozen papers, this will likely mean years and years of further work (even with the kindest of teaching loads) and a department will likely be more interested in your plans for grant applications etc over that sort of time frame than how you will salami-slice your thesis into the finest of cuts. Remember, for a REF submission, you need at most 4 papers (with some back-ups to give decent set to chose from) and if you are early career, you may not even need a full load…

So, for example, I list my work that is either published or forthcoming/accepted, things I’ve been invited to do/have agreed to, anything under review, and maybe one or two things i am working on or I know are in the works (especially grant-related/co-written).

3) preparing for the day
A final point for now, it is really important that you do your homework! You will be able to find out a lot on most department websites about teaching, research, staff etc.. You can use this on the day (more later) and in your application (as suggested above).

I’ve been surprised by people who I’ve been at interviews with and don’t seem go have done this. Obviously, it is good to ask questions on the day where appropriate (and to have question for the end of the interview itself – more later), but you don’t want to ask about things you could have found out easily in advance…

Related for this, some people advise to always contact the department in advance of applying, either by phone or email, to ask questions or to generally discuss the post/check they’d be interested in having you apply. I’m not so sure of this and I (think I) have only got the jobs that I didn’t enquire about in any way prior to applying!! While I’m sure some will disagree, for me, unless you have a really good reason to (or there is someone that works there you already know) I think this is little more than a waste of both your and the other person’s time. It should be obvious if the post is worth you applying to or not (ie on the questions of if you might fit – it’s worth applying if you sense even the slightest chance of this!!) and given there may be 50 people applying, you will likely do little more than frustrate the person with yet another phone call. I’d try to make your application stand out with the quality of its content/your achievements rather than trying to find other means to get yourself into their consciousness!

That’s enough for now. Again, this is only my perspective and happy to hear the thoughts of others on this. When I get time I will say more about…

– the presentation

– the interview

– the other bits and pieces that might happen on the day

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About Paul Simpson

I am currently a lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Physical and Geographical Sciences at Keele University. I've previously lectured at Plymouth University, and again at Keele before that. I completed my PhD (titled 'Ecologies of Street Performance: Bodies, Affects, Politics') at the University of Bristol in 2009.
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One Response to On academic job applications and interviews

  1. I wrote up my experience on my blog here recently: http://drjackiekirkham.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/on-gaining-that-first-post-phd-academic-post/ There’s lots I agree with in your post, but other issues where I had to be more choosy (eg as I am not single there wasn’t just me to think about uprooting). I guess I was lucky in that I had clinical practice to fall back on while I was looking, so could afford to be a bit more choosy and not just apply for everything, everywhere.

    I absolutely agree about making sure you meet the essential and desirable aspects of the job spec. I tend to present my cover letter in the same order as the essential/desirable criteria, and have been thanked at interview for making the shortlisters’ job so much easier, as they didn’t have to hunt for the evidence that I met the criteria. But I like your more narrative structure, and may try that in the future.

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